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Tennessee At 100: Forever 'The Poet Of The Outcast'
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Tennessee At 100: Forever 'The Poet Of The Outcast'

Theater

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Thomas Lanier Williams, was born 100 years ago today in the Mississippi town of Columbus. You know him as Tennessee Williams, one of the great playwrights in history. He wrote more than 70 plays, including "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Sweet Bird of Youth," "The Rose Tattoo" and "The Night of the Iguana" as well as a couple of novels, several collections of poetry and stories, also how could we forget, "Streetcar Named Desire." In a career that spanned half a century, Tennessee Williams redefined what a play could do and created vivid unforgettable characters.

Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOM VITALE: People who have never even seen a Tennessee Williams play know his words.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE")

VIVIEN LEIGH: (as Blanche DuBois) Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

VITALE: Williams' words function on such a basic human level that they've become iconic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARLON BRANDO: (as Stanley Kowalski) Hey, Stella. Hey, Stella.

VITALE: Stanley Kowalski, a tough-guy filled with liquor and guilt, beckoning his wife from the steamy streets of New Orleans.

His sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, a disgraced and faded Southern belle at once attracted to and reviled by the brutish Stanley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE")

LEIGH: (as Blanche DuBois) Thousands of years I've passed him right by, and there is, Stanley Kowalski, survivor of the Stone Age, bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle. And you, you, you're waiting for him. Maybe he'll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you, that's if kisses have been discovered yet. His poker night, you call it. This party of apes. Baby, we are a long way from being made in God's image. But Stella, my sister, there's been some progress since then.

VITALE: By the time this Hollywood version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" opened in 1951, starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams was recognized as the most exciting voice on Broadway, for the passion of his characters and the poetry of his language.

Three years earlier the stage version of "Streetcar" won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. It launched the career of Marlon Brando, a young unknown in a circle of actors, writers and directors that included Tennessee Williams and Eli Wallach.

ELI WALLACH: We were not interested in doing any films. We were interested in doing plays. And Tennessee was right at the top. His writing excited all of us.

VITALE: Wallach spent the first five years of his career after World War II, acting in plays by Tennessee Williams. He originated the character of Kilroy in "Camino Real." He won a Tony for creating the role of the truck driver, Mangiacavallo, in "The Rose Tattoo."

Now 95 years old, sitting at the dining table in his Upper West Side apartment, Wallach says his favorite Tennessee Williams play was "The Glass Menagerie."

WALLACH: You take a family and you wring it around and you develop a story that audiences were startled by this man's ability to do that - the struggle between a daughter and a mother. "The Glass Menagerie," what a play.

VITALE: "The Glass Menagerie" is the story of a shy physically disabled girl and her overbearing mother determined to find her a husband. In a 1951 live radio broadcast, Katherine Barrett played the girl Laura, and the legendary Helen Hayes played the mother Amanda.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST, "THE GLASS MENAGERIE")

HELEN HAYES: (as Amanda Wingfield) You're going to be the lady this time and I'll be the favorite.

KATHINE BARRETT: (as Laura Wingfield) I'm already up, mom.

HAYES: (as Amanda Wingfield) Well, resume your seat, little sister. I want you to stay fresh and pretty for gentlemen callers. I'll get the desert.

BARRETT: (as Laura Wingfield) I'm not expecting any gentlemen callers, mother.

HAYES: (as Amanda Wingfield) Sometimes they come when you least expect them.

VITALE: The disabled Laura in "Menagerie," and the fragile disgraced Blanche in "Streetcar," are characters that evoke Williams' greatest gift - his compassion for what he called the fugitive kind.

KENNETH HOLDITCH: He is the poet of and the dramatist of the outcast. He's fascinated by and champions those people who have been pushed outside the mainstream of society for some reason or other.

VITALE: Kenneth Holditch is editor of the Library of America's "Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams."

HOLDITCH: He changed the history of American drama and, I think, drama in the English-speaking world with his first two plays because they were so different and he broke free of what had been going on in the 1920s and the 1930s - all those social-protest dramas - and gave us something totally new, this wonderful understanding of human nature, human suffering, of looking at human foibles.

VITALE: Williams' empathy for the downtrodden grew out of his own experience. His father drank heavily and argued bitterly with his mother. When the young boy began writing poetry, his father belittled him as a sissy, and his classmates bullied him.

In a 1973 interview, Tennessee Williams told filmmaker Harry Rasky that a childhood illness led him to bond with his sister Rose.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: At the age of seven, I had this very, very, very bad case of diphtheria, which made me virtually an invalid. I think my mother made me feel more of an invalid than I actually was. So I was naturally thrown mostly with my sister as a companion.

And so, my sister and I grew so used to being company for each other that we tended to rely on each other's companionship rather than seeking friends, you know, outside the household.

VITALE: By the time he changed his name to Tennessee and moved to New Orleans in 1939, his sister Rose was mentally ill. Kenneth Holditch says her suffering deeply affected the playwright.

HOLDITCH: She was a schizophrenic, and she was subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy. And Tennessee was not at home when this happened, and he always felt somehow responsible for that. So he was always writing about Rose. The name Rose turns up in every single play he wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE ROSE TATTOO")

Unidentified Actor #1: (as Character) Hey lady, what kind of tattoo did he get on you?

ANNA MAGNANI: (as Serafina Delle Rose) I got a rose tattoo.

Actor #1: (as Character) Where did you get it, lady?

Unidentified Actor #2: (as Character) Where did he put it on you?

MAGNANI: (as Serafina Delle Rose) Right over my heart, little boy.

VITALE: "The Rose Tattoo" won three Oscars. The original drama won a Tony Award for Best Play. Williams received his second Pulitzer Prize for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1955." "The Night of the Iguana" won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1961.

But by the mid-'60s, age and alcohol began to catch up with Williams. He never had another hit play, yet he continued to write every day from six in the morning till noon.

Scholar Kenneth Holditch says at his best, Tennessee Williams teaches us how to survive with grace.

HOLDITCH: He said of his sister when somebody inquired about how she was doing in the nursing home as a result of the prefrontal lobotomy, and he said, she's surviving with grace. And I think he, in so many ways, taught us how to do that.

At the end of "The Glass Menagerie," Williams wrote an ode for the character of the narrator, Tom, to his disabled sister, Laura." The actor playing Tom in the radio broadcast is Montgomery Clift.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST, "THE GLASS MENAGERIE")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTGOMERY CLIFT: (as Tom Wingfield) Everywhere I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music; perhaps only a little piece of transparent glass. And all at once, my sister touches my shoulder. Laura, I tried to leave you behind. I'm more faithful than I intended to be. I reach for a cigarette. I cross the street; go into a bar. I buy a drink. Anything that can blow your candles out for nowadays the world is lit by lightning. Blow out your candles, Laura. And so good-bye.

VITALE: Tennessee Williams died in a New York hotel room in 1983 at the age of 71. He's buried in St. Louis, alongside his sister Rose.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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